by Sherwood Carter
As early as the 6th century, feathers provided quills for writing. From that time until the invention of the steel pen point in the 19th century, quills were the principle writing implements of civilized communities. Quills from crows were especially desirable for making fine lines. For ordinary script, quills from the swan were preferred to those from the goose, but the latter’s quills were used more extensively. Only the five outer wing feathers (primaries) were considered suitable for writing, especially those from the second and third follicles. Moreover, preference was given to those from the left wing because they curve outward and away from the writer. Quills obtained from living birds in the spring proved to be the best for writing. Quills from the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey have also been used as writing instruments (Feathers, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968).
Quills may be obtained from the Cooperman Fife and Drum Company in Centerbrook, Connecticut; Lewis Glaser of Charlottesville, Virginia; Colonial Williamsburg; Old Salem; G. Gedney Godwin, and other suppliers of 18th century memorabilia. The problem that I have found with most quill pens on the market is that they simply will not write. Often they have not been hardened, the nibs are crudely cut, and all the fletching is left on. Nevertheless, many of these quills can be made suitable for 18th century writing.
Quills must be cleaned and hardened before they can be properly cut to produce a fine quality writing tool. “In its natural state, the barrel or quill has a greasy external skin or membrane and an internal pithe and it is inclined to be soft. To remedy this, it must first be dressed or cured, by hardening the quill and removing the fatty surface and internal pithe” (Lincoln, p. 86). In cleaning the quills, the first step is to cut it to a length between six and eight inches and remove most of the fletching. The feathers on the quill are not necessary, and indeed, in the 18th century and earlier, most of the feathers were removed from the quill pen, and in some cases, all of the feathers were removed. Arrighi, in Three Classics of Italian Calligraphy and Wyss, in Libellus Valde Doctus (1549), show quill pens with no fletching whatsoever. Additionally, quite a few 18th century paintings show most of the fletching removed. For example, see the early 19th century quills illustrated in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968 Edition, in Volume 17 at page 547. See also the oil on canvas painting of Alexander Hamilton (1792) by John Trumble (Trumble, p. 122). I scrape mine with the back of the pen knife blade, sand them with fine sandpaper and cut them to about seven inches, leaving just a few feathers at the end to use as a pounce duster.
Now that you have cleaned the quill and removed most of the fletching, the next step is to harden it so the point or nib will not be too flexible. Hardening also may make sharpening the quill to a very fine point easier. Hardening a quill seems to be only a matter of drying it out well. I have read that leaving the pen in a sunny window for about a week would do it, as will plunging it in hot sand or baking it in an oven (Gilgun). One source states all the old masters recommended heating the quill in hot ashes and then carefully scraping the barrel of the quill with the back of the knife blade to remove the external membrane. Then the barrel is further cleaned and polished with a piece of woolen cloth or even fish skin. A 17th century method suggests that the outer membrane be scraped off and that both ends of the quill be cut off. After this they are put in boiling water containing a small amount of salt and alum. After fifteen minutes, the quills were dried either in an oven or in a tray of hot sand. It is also reported that a teaspoon of alum to a cup of water is used and that heat can then be applied to the quill by rolling it slowly against the smooth face of an electric iron heated to the temperature used for pressing rayon (Lincoln, pp. 88-89).
The Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published in 1754, says: “In order to harden a quill that is soft, thrust the barrel into hot ashes, stirring it till it is soft, then taking it out, press it almost flat upon your knee with the back of a pen knife, and afterwards reduce it to a roundness with your fingers. If you have a number to harden, set water and alum over the fire, and while it is boiling, put in a handful of quills, the barrels only, for a minute, and then lay them by” (Whalley, p. 27). (See also Quill, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1768).
My method for hardening quills is to boil them for a few minutes in water containing a little alum and salt and then dry them in the oven for two hours on very low heat. I have also dried them successfully in a microwave oven.
Once the quills are cleaned and properly hardened, the next step is to cut the nib with a pen knife. The key to successfully cutting the nib of your quill is to have a very sharp pen knife. A pen knife in the 18th century was not the miniature folding pocket knife that today is known as a pen knife. The 18th century pen knives were practical fixed-blade tools used solely for the purpose of cutting pens (Figures 1, 2 and 3). Giovanni Battista Palatino described the pen knife in Libro Nuovo d’Impare a Scrivere: “The knife for cutting quills should be of good steel, well tempered and well ground. It should be pointed. The handle must be rather sturdy and square so that it does not twist about in your hand when you are using it. It should be three times as long as the blade, though it can be more or less, depending on the length of the blade, provided that it is comfortable and can be firmly held. The blade should be rigid and not hollowed. It should curve a little forward. The back should be square, not round, with somewhat sharp edges so that you can scrape the quill. Do not use it to cut paper or hard substances that blunt the edge, but keep it exclusively for the job of cutting your quills” (Whalley, pp. 35-36).
I have found that the retractable blade X-acto knife, which is similar in size and shape to the pen knife described by Palatino, works very well and is quite sharp enough to do an excellent job. The type of X-acto knife I prefer is the kind that has a black handle and a blade which can be pushed out for use by a thumbpiece on the side of the handle and then retracted for storage. This X-acto knife has a “snap-off” blade with little hash-marks on it that allow dull parts of the blade to be snapped off so that new, sharp parts of the blade can be pushed out. X-acto knives are available at art supply stores and hobby shops.
The first step for cutting the point is to scrape the quill all over with the back of your knife blade to remove small “shavings” of quill until you have a very smooth, plastic-like finish. This will prevent minute bits of membrane from appearing on the edge of your nib and giving you a poor point. You want a point that will scratch a fine line onto the paper, rather than one that tends to of mop a sloppy broad line.
The method for cutting your quill pen was described in 1618 by Martin Billingsley in a handbook for the writer called The Pens Excellencie: or, The Secretaries Delighte.
“After you have gotten you a good pen-knife well edg’d and smooth’d upon a hoane, and a good second quill, either of goose or raven, scraped with the backe of your knife, begin to make your pen thus:
- First, holding your quill the right side upwards, cut off about the third part of it flat along the end.
- And turning it on the backe side, cut off the very end of it asloape; which being done, it will be forte.
- Then, holding it still on the backe, make a little cut in the very midst of the quill.
- When you -have done so, take the end of your knife if it have a pegg, or else another quill, and make a slit up suddenly, even in the cut you gave before.
- Which being done, turne your quill on the right side againe, and begin to cut a little thought above the slit, on the side which is next to your left hand, and so continue cutting by degrees, till you thinke you have sufficiently cut that side. But herein you must be very wary you cut not off too much of the slit; for then your pen will be too hard, and if you leave too much also, it will be too soft.
- Then even against the place you baganne to cut the first side, cut the other likewise, till you have made them both of an equall thinnesse: and then trying it by lifting up the slit upon the nail of your thumbe, you shall see whether it be too soft or too hard: if either, bring it to a meane by adding more slit to it, if you see it bee too hard; or by taking some away, if you perceive it to be too soft.
- Lastly, herein lies the difficulty, viz. in the nibbling of the pen, wherein I observe this rule, that placing it on the naile of my thumb, or middle finger I hold my knife somewhat sloaping, and cut the end of the nibbe, not quite off, but before my knife comes off, I turne him downe-right, and so cut the nibbe clean away, on both sides alike; contrary to that old rule, dextra pars penna, &c. Now if my pen be to write full, I cut off so much more of the nibbe; if small, so much less” (Whaley, p. 28).
1. Diderot, Denis, Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire Raisonne des Sciences des Arts, et des Metiers, 1777.
2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968, (Feather, Pen Drawing)
3. Gilgun, Beth, “Tidings from the 18th Century,” Muzzleloader Magazine, January/ February 1988, (Quills).
4. John Trumble, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1982 (Quill).
5. Lincoln, Abraham, An Italic Notebook, Calligrafree, 1978 (Quills).
6. Spring, June, Domestick Beings, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984 (Nib).
7. Three Classics of Italian Calligraphy, Ogg, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, (Arrighi, Palatino) .
8. Whalley, Joyce Irene, Writing Implements and Accessories, Detroit, Michigan, Gayle Research Company, Book Tower, 1975 (Quills).